Saturday, October 2, 2010

Gekko is alive and well, even if the rest of us aren't

THERE WAS an auction this week in London in which Christie's fetched $66,500 for a large metal nameplate that had hung at bankrupt Lehman Brothers' London headquarters. That particular moment in the investment firm's life had the deadening sound of finality about it. It is quite common when the once-respected name of your enterprise comes down from the wall to be sold as a collector's item.

Lehman, which went kaput with $600 billion in assets, had fallen victim to its heavily leveraged investments in the subprime housing market. It had been a major player in what nearly led to a Depression. It is big business in the stratosphere in which even some of its slippery deck shufflers don't understand all of the rules.

The ugly arcane side of Wall Street high finance is dismantled to the level of the average movie goer's comprehension in Oliver Stone's sequel to his earlier film a generation ago and now has arrived as "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." And Michael Douglas is back as a felon who has served his prison time and is slyly pawing for more action. His character, of course, is Gordon Gekko, who asserted in the earlier picture the memorable line, "Greed is good."

For the rapacious high rollers along Wall Street today, that can be construed as a compliment as they award themselves the highest of bonuses and salaries with shameless indifference to how a great many Americans are trying to make do these days. The Stone script traces the voices in the luxurious board rooms as they begin to sense that their nifty investments are on the verge of collapse. As one financier tells the other seated at the long table, ""It would be the end of the world." Really.

Gekko shows us that serialized investors who think in terms of of converting $100 million into a quick billion can always find a way. He will do that because he is well beyond good and evil now. He is just trying to show off by outwitting the others. It's a frightful tale and close enough to the truth about the muck on Wall Street to be a documentary.

And there are documents galore today. In the past two days alone , both Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase announced that they are delaying foreclosures because in their haste they, um... didn't read the paperwork. That's only the tip of the iceberg of how the investment industry gamed the system.

If the movie has a moment of failure it is only in the final few minutes, which you might want to see for yourself.

Pardon me, but in watching this grotesque profile of Wall Street, I couldn't help thinking that we have a gubernatorial candidate in Ohio, John Kasich, who spent about eight years chasing down investments for Lehman Brothers as the managing director of Lehman's Columbus division. For his loyalties, Lehman paid him $587,175 in salary and a bonus in 2008. He says he didn't have that much to do for the New York office. That makes his big payoff even worse.

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